John Grogan - The Longest Trip Home


My cohort in crime, Richard...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

My children's book "Bad Dog, Marley!" has spent the last couple weeks at #1 on The New York Times children's picture-book list, which thrills me. I say "my" book, but it's really "our" book. "Bad Dog" definitely was a collaboration, and my partner was Richard Cowdrey, a talented artist living and working in Ohio who took my words and ideas and turned them into charming, magical illustrations. Not only that, but he did it on a very short deadline, completing his work in a fraction of the usual time. Good job, Richard!

My wonderful editor at HarperCollins Children's Books, Maria Modugno, had given me the final say in choosing the artist to illustrate my book. And Richard was my hands-down favorite. As it turns out, he was Maria's hands-down favorite, too. His early rough sketches of Marley and Marley's family won us all over. I guess I don't have to tell you, Richard has a goofy Lab of his own at home, Murphy, which helps explain how uncannily he managed to capture the spirit of these animals.

Anyway, I wanted to introduce you to Richard, thank him in this forum for his amazing work, and share a feature story about him that ran in an Ohio newspaper this week:

Gambier artist illustrates best-selling children’s book
By Mark Jordan, News Staff Reporter
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
GAMBIER — “I believe that everybody’s gifted,” said Richard Cowdrey as he sat in his studio, surrounded by pictures, paints, pencils and books, with windows overlooking a peaceful rural pond. “It’s just a matter of finding where one’s gifts lay.”

The 48-year-old father of four, and grandfather of four, said he is grateful he found exactly where his talents lay: Illustration.

“Without the art thing,” he said with a grin, “I’d be in serious trouble. I was not a good student.”

Cowdrey is a freelance illustrator who has designed and executed artwork for clients all over the world, including the official poster and program for Superbowl XXXII in 1998, calendars for Longaberger Baskets and ads for Abercrombie & Fitch. In more recent years, he has achieved success as an illustrator of children’s books, particularly with the release of “Bad Dog, Marley!” based on the best-selling book “Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog” by John Grogan. “Bad Dog, Marley!” entered the New York Times Bestsellers List for Hardback Children’s Fiction at No. 7 four weeks ago and has been at No. 1 for two weeks now.

Cowdrey has steadily built his career and reputation for over 25 years. After graduating from the Columbus College of Art and Design, Cowdrey worked for Hallmark in Kansas City for a time, then moved to Vermont and began to establish himself as a freelancer. He admits it was tough getting started.

“I’d been married a short while and had a baby on the way right after that,” Cowdrey said. “So it was right into the frying pan. In the beginning, it was piecemeal, whatever [work] I could get. But one thing leads to another.”

In time, he picked up an agent in Boston, and, later, one in New York.

From Vermont, Cowdrey brought his family to rural Knox County 13 years ago. Originally from Cincinnati, Cowdrey returned to Ohio to be near family. Cowdrey and his wife, Cindy, began to search for a home reasonably close to, yet still outside, the Columbus metropolitan area. They were stopped in their tracks by Gambier, which reminded them of a small New England village. That narrowed their search to the vicinity of Gambier, where the Cowdreys found a nine-acre site on a gravel road in Harrison Township. The illustrator’s studio sits on the shore of a large, stocked pond, down the hill from the house and the carefully tended garden.

“Thirteen years later, my wife and I still go, ‘Wow!’” Cowdrey said, looking out the window over the pond to the pine woods beyond.

The studio is filled with desks and tables for drawing and painting. One desk is devoted to Cowdrey’s computer.

“I have a big iMac with all the bells and whistles,” Cowdrey said. “The thing is, as I’ve told people, it’s like I have a Jaguar and no driver’s license. I do use it for e-mail, and I can scan my sketches and send them. That’s the limit of my abilities.”

According to Maria Modugno, vice president and editorial director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, Cowdrey was one of many illustrators considered for the job.

“We wanted somebody who could capture a contemporary feeling, with a lot of energy,” said Modugno. “Those are two qualities that Marley has in overabundance.”

After the field was narrowed to six candidates, each illustrator submitted sketches for a scenario from the book.

“Richard’s were far and away the best,” said Modugno. “The author John Grogan said, ‘This guy must have a Lab!’”

And such was the case. Grogan’s book is about a big, sloppy yellow Lab named “Marley.” Cowdrey has a big, sloppy yellow Lab named “Murphy.”

Cowdrey remembers his first impression of the book.

“I know this dog,” Cowdrey said to himself after reading one chapter. “I know this story.”

He fell in love with the project and worked hard to win it.

And win it he did, in late October 2006, when Grogan selected Cowdrey as the illustrator he wanted. Cowdrey had less than three months to go from his initial sketches to finished acrylic paintings, which, according to Modugno was a “break-neck pace,” but he was able to meet the deadlines.

“I ended up pulling a few all-nighters, which I hadn’t done in years,” said Cowdrey. “It about killed me.”

The book was rushed through production and released in May with a large print run of hundreds of thousands of copies. Cowdrey said he is proud not only of the book’s success, but also in his original contributions. He said that although Grogan had a few specific ideas for illustrations, Cowdrey’s input was welcomed. No one dictated to him the details of each painting.

Cowdrey envisioned the poses of the characters, then enlisted the help of a family he knows from church — Mike and Robin McKinley and their daughter, Maria — to pose for reference photographs. He used these reference poses to model his initial sketches, which were then redone as paintings after being approved by the publisher. Cowdrey said he asked the McKinleys to pose because they matched the general verbal descriptions Grogan gave for the main characters in the story. Naturally, Cowdrey’s own dog, Murphy, served as technical reference and model at several points throughout the creation of the illustrations.

Modugno was delighted with Cowdrey’s work, and with Cowdrey himself.

“He’s pretty fabulous,” she said. “He’s a hard worker, he’s talented and he’s agreeable. That’s a very rare combination.”

A sequel is already in the works: “A Very Marley Christmas,” which is slated for release for the 2008 Christmas season. It will adapt further stories from Grogan’s “Marley & Me,” and will again feature illustrations by Richard Cowdrey.

Cowdrey will be doing a book signing at Paragraphs Bookstore in Mount Vernon on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Books will be available for purchase.

posted by John Grogan at 4:13 AM 5 comments

Signs of Summer

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Summer is still 11 days away, but at our place in Pennsylvania we're getting a jump on the season. The swimming pool is open for business, and my little sailboat, which my father bought when I was 10 and I grew up sailing, is back in the water at Lake Nockamixon, about a half hour drive away, though now I need to find some time to actually sail the damn thing.

Today, I dug up several huge clumps of "spring garlic," which is a nice way of saying the garlic I neglected to harvest when I was supposed to last July. The forgotten heads multiplied over the last many months, giving me hundreds of little mini-cloves, each about the size of a marble, which are now curing on the floor of the garage. I also picked from the garden a bowl of delicate salad greens and arugula. I thinned the broccoli and threw the tender tiny leaves in the salad bowl, too.

From the local Emmaus farmer's market, Jenny and our daughter Colleen brought home beets, baby onions, pea pods, and three beautifully ripe tomatoes, started early by a farmer down the road in a hot house. For dinner, I chopped some of the fresh garlic, onions and tomatoes, and tossed them with feta cheese, parsley and olive oil. Heaven. I washed the salad greens and tossed them with olive oil and vinegar. Jenny cooked the beets and beet greens, and made ravioli. We cracked a couple beers and called in the hounds -- the three kids -- who pretty much devoured everything as we sat out on the deck with the roses wildly in bloom around us, their perfume floating on the breeze.

The peonies are just about done now, and the purple coneflower plants -- I have dozens of them I started from seed several years ago -- are just about to flower. The asiatic lilies bloomed overnight, and the tomato plants are stocky, though weeks away from producing ripe fruit. The sunflowers are a foot tall and stout-stemmed, off to a good start on their run to 10 feet, and the zinnias I started from seed under shop lights in the basement are thriving in the bed at the end of the driveway despite the fact that Gracie, the doofus Lab, clomps through them every chance she gets, usually in pursuit of a robin or squirrel. Doesn't the dog know a flower garden when she sees one? (Don't answer that.)

From the way I'm carrying on, you might think this is my favorite time of year. Actually, it is not. That honor goes to the harvest season -- roughly Labor Day through first frost. But this definitely is my second favorite. It's a tough time of year to stay indoors.

See you outdoors....

posted by John Grogan at 3:42 PM 3 comments

If Only Marley Had a Good Shrink

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to speak in Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, at a fund-raiser for canine cancer research. Unlike most of my talks, this one was filled with a large number of veterinarians, animal behaviorists and other dog experts. Also in the audience was Neal Rubin, a columnist for the Detroit News. Detroit is my home town, and I have been reading Neal's work for years. He introduced himself to me after the event, but what he didn't tell me was that he had sat next to a dog-behavior expert who, after hearing me detail Marley's, how shall we say?, over-the-top zest for life, came up with a clinical diagnosis. Based on my description, anyway, it turns out the world's worst dog actually "had a hypervigilance for stimulation, coupled with extreme emotionality." Yes, that sounds right on target.

Marley with a psychiatric condition? Who would have thought? And I just figured he was a wildly slobbering goofball.

Here's Neal's column, which ran May 22. The link is:

Author's delinquent dog latches on to readers

By Neal Rubin

John Grogan has had 18 months now to learn how to be a famous literary figure after spending 23 weeks atop the New York Times best-seller list with a story about his delinquent dog. He's used to the attention and the gushing about how much his book meant to some stranger who recognizes him from across a coffee shop.

So he was already dipping into his pocket for a pen, he says, when a woman approached him not long ago, and he was about to break out his self-effacing smile when she said, rather sharply: "Young man, you're all out of sweetener over here!"
It was a nice reminder that before the wealth and attention, he was just a guy who loved his Labrador. And to the expert seated next to me, as Grogan told the story, it was a tale of what might have been, had the golden Lab ever seen a shrink.
Grogan, 50, a Detroit native and Central Michigan University alumnus, had serious doubts that anyone would publish "Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog" (William Morrow, $21.95). Ultimately, six houses bid on it, and as for his follow-up doubt that anyone would bother reading it, the book is now available in places where English is a head-scratcher and dogs are on the menu.

Even Howard Stern said kind things about "Marley & Me," notes Grogan, a former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, "and if I can move Howard Stern, that's saying something about the relationships between our dogs and our families."

Grogan, who now lives in rural Pennsylvania, spoke last weekend at the annual Winston Canine Cancer Foundation benefit.
The foundation bankrolls cancer research and also pays for cancer treatment for leader dogs and other canine helpers, so if ever someone was preaching to the choir, he was the guy. Even if you're lukewarm about dogs, though, it's hard to resist a specimen like Marley.

"He was at our feet when we found out we were having our first baby," Grogan says. "Then he ate the pregnancy test strip." Marley's list of snacks also included bottle caps, Handi Wipes, grilled cheese sandwiches, pieces of a stereo speaker, a brand-new gold chain and his diploma from obedience school.

Maybe he was just inordinately hungry. More likely, says Jim Lessenberry, he had a hypervigilance for stimulation, coupled with extreme emotionality.

Lessenberry, 51, owns Animal Learning Systems in Rochester; call (248) 236-9974. By trade, he's an animal behaviorist. Ask him if that means he's a dog whisperer and he says no. Barbara Babb of Bloomfield Hills, his host and a former client, says he is.

He earned a degree in psychology from Wayne State and started applying it to animals -- 99 percent of them dogs -- 21 years ago. While stressing that he never examined Marley, Lessenberry says the actions (and appetites) sound highly familiar.
He also points out that there was nothing wrong with Marley, who was simply being a goofy Lab. The problem was that his behavior did not match the expectations of the average family.

"This dog was titillated, if you will, by stimulation itself," Lessenberry says. That's the hypervigilance part. Beyond that, "he had no gradient from one emotional state to the next," which is to say his pedal was always pushed to the floor.
Yellow Labs, he says, are more likely to combine those traits than black or chocolate Labs. Heaven knows why. But yes, he could have taught Marley to relax and focus on cue, the same way dogs learn to sit or heel.

That would have changed the destiny of more than a few sofa cushions, and it could have saved Grogan some embarrassment at the coffee shop. But considering what it would have cost, it's probably fortunate Marley and Lessenberry never had a chat.

posted by John Grogan at 5:06 AM 2 comments

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